Remember  NUON DVD players that could play a few games? No? Maybe?

I recall it pretty well as I was a NUON ‘Fanboy’ for a few years. I ran a blog (before they were called such; good ol’ Geocities!) about all things NUON, reporting on news and other tidbits in regards to the technology. Called Castle NUON, myself and two or three other guys online took it upon ourselves to promote a product castnuonwe had no personal financial stake in – we weren’t investors in any of the companies involved, we just loved video games, especially from underdogs. In retrospect it might seem a little silly to get so worked up about something that ultimately failed but it was a fun ride and it gave me some experience with HTML coding, tracking down news stories, tracking down developers for interviews and more that I have used in my work for sites like Arcade Heroes. I put Castle NUON on an intended hiatus back in 2001 because I left to do religious missionary work in Brazil as an energetic 19 year old but a short time after I left, the whole NUON gig fell apart and disappeared into the memory hole. By the time I got back in 2003, there wasn’t any reason to restart the site so I moved onto other things.

The internet itself is a much different place now compared to 14 years ago, the amount of information has increased drastically as have the capabilities of what can be done online. With so much information floating around out there on a daily basis, just as much is forgotten as is learned. So I am going to take the opportunity with this blog to go back through my NUON experience, starting around 1998 up until 2001. Click on!

 

 

Project X

The late 90s was a pretty amazing time as far as technology goes. It is when the general public started to really jump into the internet thanks to HTML, web browsers, JAVA and so on. It would end up creating a market bubble, which when that burst had the standard economic fallout of various companies going under. It hadn’t been long before this that most teenagers like myself were accustomed to using computers using the text-based DOS; we tried out GUI OS’s like Windows 3.1 and 95 but if you wanted to play the cool games, DOS was where it was at. I could find little else to use those other OS’s for. Then Windows 98 came along with Internet Explorer; dial-up modems were starting to reach 56k and if you were lucky you knew someone that had an ISDN or DSL connection.  For those that didn’t want to use IE, there were Netscape Browsers. The webpages back then really didn’t look like much. They were more like scrapbooks with little artistic direction.

Around this time I became involved in various Atari message boards like Jaguar Interactive II(nothing there to see now and I can’t find an archive). Around 1997-99, the Jaguar was living a second life thanks to the efforts of companies like called Telegames and Songbird Productions who were taking unreleased Jaguar games and giving them a full commercial release. There were a huge number of games the console never got but were being worked on so it was an exciting time if you cared about that particular console – all 300~ of us.

In this environment came news about a new game console that was in the works by some of the people who were involved with the Jaguar’s development in the first place. They were working on a mysterious new console called Project X, which had been in development since 1996. For Jaguar fanboys it could be a dream come true as among the unreleased projects that the Jaguar produced was the Jaguar 2. Could this Project X be the Jaguar 3 perhaps?

The First Salvo – E3 1998

It was at E3 1998 when some of those questions were answered when a company called VM Labs made their first push to tease Project X to the game world. They did a great job with that initial hype phase and us Atari fanboys lapped it up like cold water on a hot summer day. Keep in mind that for most of us, this was the first time we received news of new video game consoles from the hyper-fast internet delivery service as opposed to waiting for a magazine to arrive in the mail. Granted, game magazines at the time still had their weight and they would provide more details to us, which I will get into in a moment.

They had a nerdy guy in a lab coat holding with a shiny briefcase pose for pictures with some security people and to the delight of the Atarians out there some of the first games were unveiled which all had ties to Jaguar software – Tempest 3000 and the Virtual Light Machine 2 were in development by the legendary Jeff Minter, Iron Solider 3 was being done by Eclipse. It was reported that Doom was ported over to the console in a single weekend; later it was also rumored that porting games from the PlayStation 1 or Dreamcast would take a mere 6-8 weeks given the flexibility of the hardware, which had been designed to give coders the freedom to do whatever they wanted. The platform was going to find its way into various “set-top boxes” to power multimedia equipment, turning those devices into game machines – much like the recently failed 3DO hardware. While that caused some worry out there, the power of the hardware was going to overtake that and we assumed that plenty of killer apps would find their way to it, including hot items like Quake or Quake II. It seemed like it was as close to the Jaguar 3 as we would get.

VMLabs_project-x_e3

Early pictures of the "VLM2"

Early pictures of the “VLM2”

Here is a port of Doom to the 3rd iteration of the Project X processor called Aries 3:

Post-E3 glow

In my collection of media from the time after E3, I have a timeline of rumors and talk about Project X, all printed out on ancient-by-todays-standards continuous stock dot matrix printed sheets (they had perforated edges and these pieces with holes on the sides to help the paper run through the printer). I have scanned them in and made them available in PDF format here:

Inside Project X (click to download the PDF). The first of these that I have is from Wired.com where they interview VM Labs founder Richard Miller. Posted on July 1998, it also interviews Bill REbohck and I believe that this article is the source for a lot of the hype that stuck with the hardware for a few years. It discusses the ability of the hardware to pull off real-time raytracing and one money quote “Our goal eventually is to give game programmers the ability to do Toy Story in real time,so that you can interact with it.”This is also where Miller mentioned that he wanted Project X to become the “Dolby of interactivity”. Overall reading this at the time we all became believers in the plan VM Labs had and it was pretty exciting.

To see that ray-tracing demo, here is a video of it that I captured from a NUON Demo disc that included that and a bunch of other demos.

In fact the hype was so real that the Project X landed on the cover of the August 1998 Next Generation:

nextgenerationmag

Good times from when “console wars” were real. It all seems rather tame by comparison these days although that isn’t a bad thing necessarily.

Motorola Unveils First Project X Box (click for the PDF) – This 2nd scan is from GameSpot.com that was posted on 9/14/98. While the project was called the Blackbird, the obvious use of “X Box” is notable here for the influence. This is also the first time the Project X hardware specs were unveiled: 1500 MIPS, texture mapping+filtering effects, lighting effects, advanced techniques like ray tracing, voxels, procedural texturing, DVD capabilities, support up to 256 controllers and so on.

From Project X to NUON

VM Labs: Now Inching Closer To Reality (click for the PDF) – On 10/27/98 is the day when VM Labs finally announced the official name of the hardware, the NUON. This article spends a bit of time explaining the name, to which I think if you need to explain it with that many words its not the intuitive thing that you need. I remember my initial reaction being similar to hearing that Nintendo announced the Wii as the real name of their Project Revolution. The codename stuff sounded cooler than the end product. But as newly christened “NUONites” we warmed up to the name shortly after that. This article was one of the first times the supposed NUON controller (nicknamed The Claw) was seen as well.

It should be noted that while these articles keep mentioning that the strategy of the company was towards an all-in-one entertainment set top box and not a dedicated game console, the fans usually overlooked that and we spent our time obsessing over the potential games with the other stuff as a nice addition.

Rumored Square Titles in Development – Gaming Age (NUON/PS2 Rumors) (click for the PDF) – this short article at Gaming Age caused a bit of a stir among the NUON community as it got into rumors regarding the power of the NUON and Sony’s PlayStation 2. I imagine that some of these rumors were based upon the Richard Miller interview above and the fact that the processor was both powerful and flexible so that it seemed plausible that NURBS or the more advanced SMURFS would be a breeze.  I can’t find where it was rumored at this point but I do remember discussion appearing that these leaks to Sony also pushed them to include DVD in the PS2 so that they were not left behind by this no name company.

Here is an archived version of the NUON Website. Although jumping to it now might look odd unless you know the rest of the story as they touted “major announcements” and other things that ended up not happening 😉

Keeping the hype alive until release

As shown in these documents, the plan was for NUON-enhanced electronics and software to start showing up in 1999. But that is not exactly what happened. The Dreamcast would soak up most of the attention this year and with many other companies working on new hardware, it left the small VM Labs in a tough spot but they went forward anyways. I actually can’t find much info timestamped in 1999 from this time; I remember bits and pieces but it has been long enough that you are never sure when you heard something new.

Either way, after the ’98 period had passed, there were long periods where we heard nothing, then something would pop-up to drive the hype again. It is funny what difference a year makes – when E3 1999 came around, NUON was not really the talk of the show as news from games for other platforms grabbed all of the attention. They did create some slick flyers but by showing the “all-in-one” entertainment focus as opposed to the gaming angle, I think they lost some of that audience (funny how right now, if you don’t promote all of the entertainment options your platform can do beyond games, you would be laughed to scorn).

NUON Overview and Tech Specs Flyer (click for PDF)

NUON “Expect More” Flyer (this was more of an in-store flyer as opposed to a tech fan spreadsheet; click for PDF)

Here is an e3 1999 preview of Iron Soldier 3 – all FMV of course since that was proven to be a sure-fire way to drive hype without actually showing the playable product (VML would hardly be the only ones to commit this sin)

I remember scouring the internet for any and all news that I could find for my Castle NUON site but it was no easy task. I did come across Titan 3 in development by Tiertex, unfortunately I cannot find any of the media for that now but it looked like an interesting sci-fi vehicular combat game. Here is an old archived page for it.

By the end of the year we knew that NUON wouldn’t be on the market when promised but Samsung made an announcement that would be the first company to include the technology inside of their DVD players, starting with the Samsung Extiva N-2000.

NUON(tm) Delivers Interactivity to Samsung (Dec. 8th 1999)

In The Year 2000uuuuund… 

Between the new Millennium being ushered in and the world not ending because of Y2k and a host of other reasons, things got off to a good start in the NUON world, at least from the hype perspective. No we didn’t have any hardware or games yet, but it was definitely coming this year, that was certain. Starting with that last press release, we knew that Samsung was on board and not long after that Toshiba would jump into the game of providing NUON-enhanced DVD players to the masses. It seemed like it would be any day now, especially when press releases like these were sent out just days after the New Year had begun (all are press releases, click for the PDF):

VM LABS’ NUON Technology Endows Next Generation of DVD Products With Interactivity (Jan 6th 2000)

VM LABS Partners Set To Go To Market With NUON Peripherals (Jan. 6th 2000)

VM LABS And Interactual Technologies Provide Studios With Interactivity Tools (Jan. 6th, 2000)

As you can see in the first PR, there were supposed to be six “launch” titles available including: Tempest 3000, Merlin Karting (later changed to Merlin Racing), Iron Soldier 3, Freefall 3050 AD, Myst and aMaze.

The 3rd PR discussed NUON-Enhanced DVD movies, which they would later call “NUON Hybrid Movies”. Interestingly enough, none of the mentioned films (The Matrix, Ghostbusters, The Mummy, The Blair Witch Project, The Spy Who  Shagged Me) have ever been found with NUON features, although one could imagine some of the HD-DVD features for The Matrix were the NUON features that had just been sitting on a shelf waiting for the right hardware – which would also fail.

Those PRs made it sound like it all might be launching that month. However January came and went, then the rumors turned to March but March also flew by without a word.

Amongst NUONites, most of the discussion was surrounding the games and not so much the movies. As mentioned, this line-up shared some similarities with the Atari Jaguar so it wasn’t hard for Tempest 2000 fans to find their way over. Here are a couple of early videos that Gamefan Magazine grabbed of the beta software for Tempest 3000, Iron Soldier 3 and one game which promised to use the raytracing abilities of the hardware, aMaze:

That kept us happy for a while but as time slogged on, it was difficult for our zeal to always hide the impatience.

May is when a new slew of PRs hit the newswires, thanks to E3 2000. Those included announcements for Hasbro joining the line-up of NUON developers, Toshiba announcing their SD-2300 NUON DVD player, DVD International picking up distribution rights for NUON content, PLanetweb picked for NUON’s internet strategy and later in the month, that a high ranking Sony exec, Paul Culberg, left to join VM Labs. At E3 2000, they brought on some celebrities to promote the hardware which helped with a little talk. With all of that however, we did not receive an official announcement for the launch of any hardware

The Samsung Extiva Arrives 

It was the last week of May when I came across a listing for samsung’s previously announced N2000 Extiva on CDW.com where instead of it ‘coming soon,’ it was listed as Available. This was a big surprise given that there was no announcement about it on the forums or through any press releases – it was very much under-the-radar. Keep in mind that this was still around the time where buying stuff online was kind of new to everyone so we were even wondering if it was legitimate. For $500, it wasn’t what anyone would call an impulse buy but we had been waiting for this for a couple of years so myself and a couple of others took the plunge and waited. Click on the image below for the pdf of the brochure that came with the player.

extivagfx

Within a week it arrived on my doorstep and on the forums, I was the first person to have one. It was a slightly odd experience for me as I had media outlets contacting me asking for good pictures but I didn’t have a digital camera and cell phones with a camera was also unheard of. I didn’t have game journalists clamoring for information, just people interested in A/V or tech. I had to use a Polaroid camera and a scanner which was very much a crude way of sharing the news and not really the PR that a company looking to compete with something like the PlayStation 2 should have been looking for.

It was an adjustment from the initial expectation of a powerful new game console known as Project X – instead it became important to remember the business perspective on this – it was NOT a game console but a powerful DVD player that could play games. With the PlayStation 2 that lost a good chunk of its impact and at the end of the day the other way around was much more effective – regardless, if you wanted a full featured DVD player, then the Extiva was it. It was a good product to showcase the NUON concept – while it was the first DVD player I had owned, I never had owned another which offered as much as it did right out of the box. The image quality was typical for DVD at the time of 480p resolution but one could connect using composite, S-Video and Component cables; it had a 20x zoom ability where the image could be manipulated at anytime and in any part of the frame without pausing; a Fine Motion shuttle function for frame-by-frame; Angle View support for different angles on supported DVD; an ActionCapture to capture 9 frames a second (more of a tech demo thing, kind of useless), a Smart Matrix menu that let you see various data per disc; and a SnapShot feature to freeze a frame and adjust color/gamma/brightness and export it to a PC. The audio options were top-of-the-line and extensive as well with 5.1 channel out, separate 24-bit stereo outputs; digital audio outputs for both coax and optical, a gold plated headphone jack in the front with independent volume control and an HDCD decoder. Then it had the Virtual Light Machine 2, Jeff Minter’s psychedelic real-time interactive visualizer the official sequel to the Atari Jaguar CD VLM that would work with an audio CD.

Soon after the Extiva was launched Toshiba launched their SD-2300. The flyer I have for this is pretty basic compared to the Extiva but the player itself was a cheaper alternative to nab a NUON for a time.

toshibasd2300

One odd design choice they decided to go with was to ditch the six button arcade style layout on The Claw controller in favor with – copying the N64 controller design almost exactly. No one was really excited about that but it was what it was. The Extiva came with what we called the “Batarang” controller thanks to its design. It was a comfortable controller but oddly lacked any analog control, just the D-Pad. There were a few controllers made available for it – one by HPI which was as direct a rip-off of the N64 design as you could get, then there was the most desired controller by Logitech which was closer to the Batarang controller but featured an analog stick. None of these offered a save card feature so the games had to rely on passwords.

“Launch Titles”

One thing you expect with any game console is to have at least some variety with the launch line-up so that when you’ve spent a pretty penny on the hardware, you have something to do for a while. With the NUON, it soon became apparent that they were afraid of being confused with a game console. When I got the Extiva, it came with one complete game, a puzzle title called Ballistic which was a rip-off from an arcade title no one had heard of called PuzzLoop and a Demo Disc. That demo disc included a few levels from Tempest 3000, a track from the upcoming Merlin Racing and promo videos for a few other games along with what NUON could do with regular DVDs, what it would eventually offer for NUON-enhanced DVDs.

The problem was that as we read in that press release at the beginning of 2000, the launch titles were not even close to ready for when the Extiva launched. What it and the Toshiba model came with is all we had from the beginning of June until December 2000. For anyone used to how game consoles worked, or were expecting one, had to come away severely disappointed. At least it could play DVDs and CDs but even the NUON-Enhanced DVDs that had been touted were nowhere to be found for a long while – when they did come, there were only 4 (Bedazzled, Buckaroo Banzai, Dr. Dolittle 2 and Planet of the Apes 2000 remake).

Ballistic – For the part of the games, Ballistic was a fine and fun single player puzzle game but hardly something one would have considered the showcase title for what the hardware was touted to be in the Project X phase. It did not do anything to take special advantage of the hardware with the raytracing or anything like that.

The Next Tetris – The “pack-in” game for the Toshiba, this was found on the SD2300’s demo disc. It could have fooled anyone that it was a full game, since it ended up being a huge disappointment among NUONites – and anyone else that grabbed it. The developers were given a meager two weeks to put the port together using an incomplete dev kit that didn’t even offer support for two players. As such, the game didn’t have backgrounds, just the 3D playfields for the Tetris blocks and some music. Eager to get our hands on anything in the NUON content drought, we found ways to get this despite it not being sold in stores.

Demo Disc – Samsung NUON models received this disc which contained clips for 8 games and a wireless controller that was never released. It also included demos for three games, Tempest 3000, Freefall 3050AD and Merlin Racing. Normally one doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on demo discs but due to having little else for my Extiva except for a few movies, I ended up playing this one quite a bit over the months that we waited for the promised games. Fortunately they included enough content for the games to keep it interesting – 3 levels from Tempest 3000, a single track from Merlin Racing and a level from Freefall.

Something in time for Christmas

This could be considered the worst launch in game console history but even if you give the NUON slack for not being a game console but something else, they still dropped the ball hard since NUON Enhanced movies were not ready to go either. Granted, this does go to show why the release did not happen in 1999 – it is better to hold back until you have content ready for the spotlight since you aren’t going to get a second change. Even then it would be the very end of 2000 as to when NUON would start to give it a try when we finally received 3 full games to play. These were all NUON exclusives, which helped make them desirable from a gaming perspective but in the bigger picture of things, it was too little, far too late.

This does run counter to what VM Lans’ own projections were earlier in the year. Here is a cool document dated Aug. 18th, 2000 that when you read it, it sounds like a bullet proof plan.It did make it sound like the launch hadn’t happened yet but would take place before the end of the year but it is an interesting and condensed glimpse of the business plan they had at the time. If product had arrived as promised – the 15-20 games, the internet connectivity kit and more, then it would have been pretty awesome.

VM Labs Presentation for NUON-enhanced DVD – Advertising Plan & Marketing Presentation

Note that they were pretty much ignoring any video game trade publications as mentioned earlier, going just for DVD consumer stuff.

When December came, I had Christmas early as three games arrived in the mail so I no longer had to use the demo disc. All three were NUON Exclusive titles that remain so to this day. They were:

Tempest 3000 – Legendary game maker Jeff Minter was a part of VM Labs from early on and he contributed to some of the hardware design. So his effort to bring a sequel to one of the best games for the Atari Jaguar was met with high anticipation.

I interviewed YaK on this back for Castle NUON but unfortunately I have lost that.  I’ve also lost the thread where he appeared one day asking for suggestions to fill in on the default high score table. Where my board nickname was ‘Shaggy’ and he loves certain shaggy animals, I asked him to use my username early on so that is where the 3rd place one came from; Beefman and K3V were also users that responded to him early on so that is where those names on the list come from. For the interview, I do remember asking him questions about the hardware and the development process, as well as whether he considered it to be the “killer app” for the system. He did not believe that at the time as he was still confident in other developments that were taking place for the hardware but as things turned out, it being one of the few available games for NUON made it a killer app by default.

For the game itself, it took the Tempest concept, combined with the 2000 concepts and added some extra weirdness from the mind of Yak. The webs appear to be alive as they are constantly in flux, waving around as though they are affected by a light-breeze, unique particle effects are everywhere, the webs are filled with impressive dynamic textures and the game usually maintains 60FPS (only very occasional drops). The game doesn’t look at all like anything else out there and if all you want is graphics pr0n, then this is one way to show the NUON’s flexibility.  On the control side, it is similar with a simple scheme in place. Power-ups work the same way as in 2000 but there are changes, such as the autofire option, homing missiles and the jump feature was scrapped in favor of the hover, which is also tied to a bonus system (the less you use it, the bigger the bonuses). All of the classic enemies return but new ones have been added which greatly increase the difficulty such as Web Spiders which tear the webs apart until you kill them; the pulsar like enemies which instantly send out a lightning bolt when hit so you have to be extremely careful when dealing with them. The CD version of the 2000 soundtrack is re-used with some excellent extras.

It is a fun game that is a hardcore shooter but it is not without faults. The biggest problem the game had was what one super-obscure magazine by the name of Syzygy called “The Blur”. In YaK’s zeal to create graphics that were vector-like in that they shows “no pixels”, the anti-aliasing and blur filters used take some getting used to (moreso now in revisiting the game and being used to HD) and are the opposite of the clarity that the other versions offered which helps play the game in distinguishing one enemy from another. This becomes more difficult when you reach later levels with the pulsars or pular-like enemies where telling them apart from the web is essential for survival. As such, a lot of playing through levels 118 and up can come down to sheer luck.

Syzygy’s take on Tempest 3000. The editor was a huge fan of Tempest 2000 and coined “the blur”. I have this mag plus another one where the editor interviewed Owen Rubin about NUON, who wasn’t terribly impressed. But I’m too lazy to scan at this point so will just use NUON-Dome for it 😛

The game also has its own VLM-type ‘object viewer’ where you can set a soundtrack song in the sound menu then go and check out the various objects to the game. The game does support 2 players, however you take turns. The game does not feature the Classic Arcade, Plus or VS. modes that 2000 offered. Despite the blur it is a fun game and if you have a NUON DVD unit, owning Tempest 3000 is essential.

Merlin Racing – Designed by the same team that created Atari Karts for the Atari Jaguar, this is a cute fantasy themed racing game that is obviously pulling ideas from the Mario Kart games. They did come up with some interesting ideas, such as driving around an arena in story mode where you have to gain keys to open other regions; it also featured space karts and motorboats. Originally you were supposed to drive around as King Arthur and other fantasy characters to free Merlin from an evil witch but for some reason they ditched that in favor of some cute animal characters developed just for the game (except for maybe YaK’s Flossie).

With over 30 tracks it is varied and fun; there is also a split screen mode for two players. Graphically it doesn’t live up to the Project X hype exactly – it is above Mario Kart 64 but does not reach the level of something you would find on the PS2. The textures use either bilinear or trilinear filtering that was typical from that time, poly counts aren’t necessarily the highest you would find in a game from that era. There are particle and light effects, the liquid surfaces are animated and fine but the frame rate seems to stick around 30FPS. Some animations like the explosions leave something to be desired though. The most impressive levels would have to be the space ones, where you find more detail and animated textures than the other levels, followed by some of the boating levels like the lava or toxic waste areas where there is some nice art and animation.

The game controls fine and the music isn’t annoying but if you want a selection of racing games for NUON, there are none to pick from aside from this.

Freefall 3050 A.D. – The oddest of the NUON library and something that flew in the face of the talked about preference at VM Labs for providing casual family entertainment. I still have never played anything like this, which the creator of the game, Tony Takoushi, liked to describe as “Quake meets Pilotwings”. There really isn’t anything quite like it out there in the wide world of video games that I have ever played.

Gamefan review of Freefall by the aforementioned ECM. Gamefan would be one of the few magazines to try and cover NUON games, even though VM Labs would have preferred DVD tech journals to cover it instead. Scan via NUON-Dome.com

In towering skycities of the future, you are a cop cleaning up the skyways. You drop from high above the city and must take out criminals who are hanging out doing criminal things on the way down. There are other portions where you fall through tunnels and there are traps and other things to be on the look out for, which is where your airbrakes come in handy. Each level is divided into 4 missions, each of which starts high into the sky and ends somewhere in the bowels of the city below. The sky missions are ok but the main problem that plagues any sequence with human enemies is that they are bullet-sponges. Not only do they take multiple hits to kill, they get an invincibility lead time after a single hit. You can pick up different weapons to make this less of a headache, which you will want to do since the stock stuff is weak. This often makes taking out a single guy a bigger chore than it should have been. Vehicles however are not so bad. You also need to be careful when using your grenades – if you are too close to an explosion it will damage your health.

Fortunately the other aspects of the game of plummeting through the passageways and managing your airbrakes to avoid traps can be enjoyable. The bottom of any set of levels is a challenge where you have to navigate an air vent maze, with some vents being stronger than others to push you into the air. Like the rest of the game, it is different although I prefer the freefalling parts in the city the most. The best sequence in the game is when a nuclear bomb is plummeting towards the bottom of the city and you have to methodically take out the turrets and deactivate the bomb before it reaches the bottom. I’ve heard complaints before that using the Batarang controller is missing a button but when I played the game again today, I didn’t have any trouble with the control and didn’t notice anything “missing”. An analog stick is not necessary to move your view around, in fact NUON pads did not separate the digital and analog controls from each other so it just serves as a smoother D-pad. I have both types and I can play the game just fine either way. You do have to hold one of the shoulder buttons down while moving the D-Pad to move your 3D view around, which is probably what confuses people.

Even though I didn’t play the game for a few years, I was able to get back into this and handle that level, here is a video look:

2001: A (Failed) NUON Odyssey

Finally getting your hands on these games was a great experience and it felt like the whole NUON effort was coming together. Samsung had other NUON DVD players coming along such as the N501 and other manufacturers were taking a look at the technology as well. However, this spurt of content was the only hurrah the technology would really get at the end of the day.

Only two more games would actually see the light of day in 2001:

Space Invaders XL – Taito’s famous Space Invaders found a place on the hardware with this title. Like many other occasions where Taito has given SI some life on home consoles, its a compilation of SI variations. The most interesting of those to be found is the Battle Mode where you play against another person, much like a puzzle game in that taking out enemies sends them to the opposing playfield. Other than that I think they took the “casual play” much too seriously – there is nothing impressive here on a graphics or sound level, it’s more disappointing than anything when you have efforts like Tempest 3000 showing how to reboot an arcade classic. That said, this one is pretty hard to find and at the end of the day its SI so if you like that you can’t go wrong.

Iron Soldier 3 – One of my most anticipated titles is the only one I still have yet to play. When I left the country in April 2000, the game had not yet been released. I did ask a couple of people to buy it for me online but that was a problem – online purchasing was still pretty new and game stores weren’t really carrying anything NUON. It came out in May 2000 but I was out-of-luck. After that the game came hard to find and always has commanded very high prices when it does show up on eBay. A PSX version exists of the game which is much easier to come across but I’ve not played it on that platform either. As such, I’ve had to watch videos of it to get a feel or refer to one of these handy comparisons.

Much like the original two Iron Solider games for the Atari Jaguar, you walk around cities in a big mech, blowing up buildings and shooting down attacking enemies. Now you have greatly improved graphics (including full texturing, weather effects, and hills), more levels, more weapons, a new mech type, an arcade mode, a co-op mode and  split-screen competitive mode. Graphically the NUON version is much better than the PSX but the PSX has memory card support – something that the NUON never received but should have had from the get-go, which was pretty frustrating. Overall this and Tempest are generally considered the highlights of the NUON game library, which came to an abrupt halt after IS3.

Because a bug was found in the initial release, they had to recall the discs and relied on Kevin Manne of the NUON Dome fansite to give out bug free copies.

Movies

When I asked ECM about the NUON, one thing he brought up was that they did not want it to be seen as a game machine and that the main focus was to enhance movies, games were a nice addition. The issue with that is that it took almost a year from the release of the Extiva to get our hands on the first NUON-enhanced movie. As such in making a case for any NUON-enhanced machine, it came down to the DVD stuff it could do out of the box and a little bit about the games. It was always quite frustrating to hear on one end how quickly content could be made for the chip and then in reality it took an awfully long time. It also was a bit headsctratching that they didn’t have any NUON-enhanced DVDs ready to go with the Extiva, such as a pack-in title that could have showcased all of these supposed abilities.

As mentioned, there were 4 movies which would release with NUON-Enhanced features but instead of looking at each, I’ll just mention the enhancements here since they were all the same. There wasn’t anything here that made the NUON versions ‘killer apps’ so-to-speak, they just demonstrated that there was potential there to expand. I will just quote NUON-Dome on this since I’ve taken up enough time writing as it is 😛

Viddies
Viddies are dynamic bookmarks of scenes from the film along thematic lines.

Gamma Zooms
This exploring activity lets the studio pre-select interesting still frames and highlight behind-the-scenes stories and points of interest. Utilizing NUON’s revolutionary Zoom and Pan the viewer can zoom in and pan on interesting scenes in the movie.

Hyper Slides
On a standard DVD player, Planet of the Apes displays a still gallery of pictures from the movie production. The Hyper Slide feature brings the stills gallery to life by contrasting the art director’s concept with the movie director’s implementation.

Scene Selection
This navigation feature lets the viewer browse through chapter selections with the aid of full-motion scaled video in an interface window. Dynamic descriptive text is automatically displayed in a window that gives a brief synopsis of the current chapter. By selecting a chapter name from the list, the video is updated to that chapter and the user may select full screen viewing.

At the end of the day, these were features that were similar to what HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs would offer a few years later, particularly the Scene Selection. NUON was also going to offer an online kit to where you could do some extra things. One example they liked to use was Mission Impossible 2, which was popular at the time. With an online NUON DVD, you could pull up a store on the fly and buy the sunglasses Tom Cruise used and things like that. NUON players were also supposed to be able to access DVD-ROM content that normally had to be put into a PC. Much like the games, there was potential there but ultimately it was wasted. I still think that such features can make buying a physical version more interesting but you rarely see any marketing about that anymore. Of course it doesn’t help that not all Blu-Ray players are equal and can access the same features, which is why I think they avoid marketing those things to avoid confusion. It’s too bad really since you do miss out on a lot of these neat ideas when all you do is stream.

So What Happened?

I would need to interview a VM Labs employee willing to be upfront about all of that to get the full picture but I have not come across anyone involved with the company in years. They were nice people from those I talked with. Once, a VML person called me up on the phone and walked me through upgrading the firmware on my N-2000 and they sent me the press kit which has provided a lot of the documentation for this post. In a nutshell, they ran out of money. Why all of the hype and little substance is not something I ever received a satisfying answer for.

As you can tell from the data above, it was incredibly frustrating to root for the NUON as it was one delay after the other and features which should have been basic from the start never materialized. In some ways the companies demise was tied to that of the “Dot Com Bubble Burst” around 2001 but it was more than that. Like the 3DO, there was a vision of what it should be but getting there was easier said than done. It could play 3D games but they didn’t want it confused with a game machine so they denied using some of the best laypeople on the planet for evangelization – gamers – afraid of getting the wrong message out. You not only had to try and explain something that could handle a variety of features but you also had little hard evidence to back it up with. At the end of the day, it seemed like a DVD player with an awesome zoom function and it could play a couple of basic or weird games.

The hardware was not as powerful as initially led on when it was Project X. We did find out that it was innovative – it was similar to a quad-core type CPU, it was 128-bit and it produced that touted 1,500 MIPS running only at 54mHZ. But a later version of the chip which ran at twice the speed and had some other features was much better, only to be put into units like the Samsung N504 which didn’t use any NUON game ports. Maybe if it had been released in 1998 it would have been a real contender but it was 2001 when tangible product was available. Beating N64 quality was doable but if it could have competed with the Dreamcast is something that didn’t appear to be in the cards, much less the DVD-playing PS2.

Out of fear of being label as a game console, they also killed off some great projects. I’m not sure why you would want to burn that bridge when there was so little to offer in the first place although I’m sure at the time they were convinced that plenty was going on that fit into their vision. I do recall reading Scott LeGrande’s thoughts on the situation there. He was a VML employee that was part of a team that created the highly-desired space combat game BattleSphere for the Atari Jaguar and was working for nVidia the last time I heard about him. He wanted to port BattleSphere to the NUON but was shot down. Duranik, a small German development team with a knack for art and coding wanted to bring their unfinished Native project from the Jaguar to the NUON but were also shot down. Along those lines…

Unreleased Games

There were a few games in development for the platform that never saw the light-of-day. Unfortunately I have not heard of any of these ever showing up to be produced as a homebrew, like the Atari Jaguar has enjoyed. A list can be found at NUON Dome with a couple of exceptions  – BattleSphere and Titan 3. I assume BattleSphere isn’t included as it sounded like it never got past the pitch stage.

aMaze – It was surprising that this wasn’t released, given how often the game showed up in NUON promos. I also have a flyer for it that came in my press kit. It was also supposed to be a launch title but it disappeared as quietly as it arrived. Aside from the obvious attempt to recreate those old physical marble mazes that you might have played with as a kid, this was also supposed to be the first NUON game to make use of real-time raytracing that was always being talked about.  I remember trying to find out anything I could about this one but the developer’s website was as good as an arcade flyer that tells you the game name with a picture of the cabinet and nothing else. I imagine that if there is any complete prototype out there, this would fit the bill. I do wonder if the frame rate issues were part of the problem, notice how it drops when the ball goes into chrome mode.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dNgV-ZP-g4   <-Super low rez

Bugdom – I remember coming across news of this one back in the day and there being some excitement about it, given stuff like A Bugs Life and Toy Story. It was also one of the few Mac-only games at the time that anyone recognized 😛 I have never seen any NUON screenshots or video so who knows what became of it.

MYST & Riven– As a note, I don’t care for MYST at all. Not because I didn’t ‘get it’, but because I thought it was boring and that other games of the same style did it better. Granted I was spoiled early on – by the time I received MYST for the PC I already had the vastly superior Return To Zork. Which I would take in a heartbeat over MYST and any of its sequels. Myst was included in the flyers I received with the press kit, Riven is mentioned in the marketing plan along with Monopoly and The Game of Life.

Native II – As mentioned, a small team in Germany wanted to bring their sidescrolling R-Type like game to the NUON but for some reason it was shot down. Best guess was that it was too hardcore when they wanted more crap like MYST to appease the casual players. Here are some very brief concept videos for it that blows everyone’s socks off – my guess is that if the final product had come into being, it would have ended up much like Duranik’s Strumwind for the Dreamcast. It’s too bad they don’t homebrew port Strumwind over to NUON for fun, as a virtual snub back to getting shot down in the first place.

Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure – One would think that just mentioning that you were going to port several year old games to your hardware that it was a sign of total desperation, which makes the shooting down of original and cool stuff like Native all the more baffling. There was a plan to bring Pitfall to the NUON but no word on if it would have differed in any way

Puzzle Bobble 4 – I would have taken this over The Next Tetris any day. It was pretty close to a release but got the sack. Too bad.

RC De GO! – While Merlin Racing is the only racing game for the platform, there were a couple of other racers in development for it, both of which would have involved RC cars.

Speedball 2100 – I remember when this was announced, upon looking it up I became excited. I’m not a sports gamer by any means but I enjoyed games like Brutal Sports Football and this sounded like it would fall into similar lines. There is a PSX version of this so it is assumed that like IS3, the NUON version would have played the same just with better graphics – and sadly a password system.

Star Trek Invasion – As a Trekkie myself, when I found out about this I was on-board already. Fly around the Star Trek universe with fast-paced dogfighting action (atypical for ST). Once again it falls under the “would have been like IS3 in comparing to the PSX version” but why that fabled 6-8 week port time didn’t materialize with this and a bunch of other games is anyone’s guess. Well, aside from considering that was total BS to begin with

Titan 3 – I’m not really sure why this one gets ignored from unreleased NUON games lists. I came across the Tiertex website in 1999 I think it was and they had a listing for a NUON game called Titan 3. It would have been a vehicular combat game that took place on Saturn’s moon Titan. It sounded like a neat sci-fi concept but aside from some vehicle models, it quietly disappeared like many other NUON titles.

zCards – I also remember finding this one by vigorously scouring the internet for anything NUON. I would do that about once a week on Yahoo and it was nice to find stuff like this – even though it wasn’t a game that I otherwise would have paid any attention to. The website I found it on used those wonderful frames that everyone hated. Good times. Anyways, it would have been an online card playing game where you had dog characters. Nothing gamers would really care for but nice fodder for casuals.

There were more as you can see on the NUON Dome list but nothing really worth mentioning.

HomeBrews 

Pretty much everything that can play video games gets homebrews. The NUON has had a few but not much, especially in recent years. One issue was that for a while, homebrews could only be played on certain DVD models but the authentication tools are now available which broadened the scope of homebrews to any NUON with the game ports. That still leaves an issue with the fact that there aren’t many people that know about the NUON and it didn’t create a fanbase among coders that want to make something for it. Once again, one would think that if it really was that easy to port content over to the chip that there would be a big selection of ports but that hasn’t been the case.

Homebrews of note:

NUON Games + Demo Disc – Put together by NUON Dome & DragonShadow Industries, this allowed NUONites to finally see and play some of those demos that were talked about over the years, like the Doom or RayTracing demos. It also featured some of the homebrew games such as Decaying Orbit, SameGame, Chomp TE. It was only missing the fabled voxel demo but despite that it is a great compilation with a few games to enjoy as well.

Decaying Orbit – This is a physics based space game where you have to hop along planets to reach a goal. While not graphically impressive, it is a fun retro style game

Killmind – This one just came out, a puzzle game that is a port of a 3DO homebrew.

In Conclusion

That is my long, wordy trip down NUON memory lane. I will probably add a little more about it to the blog later. Despite some of the frustrating parts at times, it was a cool experience. Thanks to Youtube, there is still a little recognition of the hardware out there but for anyone that still owns one, it would be nice to see more content for it. Of course, the chances of anyone producing ‘second generation’ or ‘third generation’ type content for a NUON chip (i.e., the same coder creates multiple games, improving on each with what they learned from last time) are pretty small. But it still plays DVDs and those still sell brand new for movies out there so not all is lost.

If you have or had a NUON DVD player, what did you think of it?

 

 

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About Shaggy

I addition to my professional work in the arcade industry which has ranged from operator to consultant, I like to write about other subjects that interest me as well...if I can find the time.

2 responses »

  1. […] A Fan’s History – The NUON – from Gaming Acryphon […]

  2. Tempest is too blurry ( waay to much anti aliasing ) but Iron Soldier 3 impresses. Towards the end, employees were working for free to keep the project alive.

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